Sermon for Advent 3 2020

Preached by the Curate

Many of you may know that Fr. John and I graduated from different Episcopal seminaries. Fr. John studied at General Theological Seminary in New York, and about a decade later, I studied at Virginia Theological Seminary in, well, Virginia. Historically, General and Virginia seminaries were on opposite sides of the “High Church / Low Church” divide. And so one could expect that we had a dissimilar course of study, and that we were taught by completely different faculty. And, for those most part, that is true, but there are a couple notable exceptions! The most interesting professor that both Fr. John and I knew from our time at General and Virginia seminaries seminaries is Dr. James Farwell, a priest and liturgy scholar. I should say up front that Dr. Farwell is a respected liturgical scholar and I was glad to have had the opportunity to study in his classes. But the thing that makes him a bit of an interesting character is that he has quite a few personal opinions about liturgy that he will speak with exactly the same amount of confidence and gusto as when he is speaking about any well established part of our liturgical tradition.

So for point of reference, here is an example of one of Dr. Farwell’s liturgical recommendations that, as far as I could tell, was original to him. He taught that if incense is brought in during the procession, the priest should cense the ambo or pulpit, and not the altar. He thought the we should cense the place that will be used, and since the service begins with readings and preaching, those places should be censed at the beginning, and the altar censed only at the offertory. This is a practice I have to this day only ever seen observed at Virginia Seminary.

Suffice it to say that Dr. Farwell had some unique teachings. He also had some pet peeves, that is, liturgical traditions that he loathed and recommend that churches would abandon. And here today I am committing one the biggest offenses against my dear professor’s liturgical sensibility. Dr. Farwell was very much against the use of rose colored vestments on the third Sunday of Advent, and the 4th Sunday of Lent. He argued that the prayerbook makes no provision for any special deviation on these days from the rest of the season. For Dr. Farwell the typical Advent debate of blue vs violet was never the problem: rose was the problem! “It detracts from the overall theme of advent as a whole to have one special day of a different color, he said.” But, fundamentally, the very worst part about rose vestments, as well as having a pink candle in the advent wreath for that matter, is that preachers will be tempted to spend some sermon time talking about why we’re wearing pink today, and that time should be spent spreading on the scriptures, contemporary issues, or the overall theme of Advent as a unified whole.

So will all due respect to our clergy colleague and beloved professor, I will now commit one of the great pet peeves of Dr. Farwell by telling you all that, yes, we’re wearing rose vestments today, and if this were an in person worship service, you would see the pink candle lit as well, because today is….. Gaudate Sunday!

So what is Gaudate Sunday? Gaudate is Latin and it means means “rejoice.” This day is named as such because “Gaudate” is first word from the antiphon of the mass that would have traditionally been sung by the choir on this day in western liturgies while the celebrant and ministers approached the altar. And this first word – Rejoice sets the theme of the day – and not by accident! Advent, overall, is traditionally understood as a penitential season, as Lent is. But just as it is with Lent, even in the middle of a penitential season, we find joy in Our Lord.

St. John the Baptist calls us to “Make Straight the way of the Lord.” He calls us to change our hearts and our lives to prepare for the Lord’s coming. This call to repentance, the call for us to grapple and come to terms with our own sinfulness in order to prepare for Christ requires soul searching on our own part. It requires humility and personal penance. The violet color is associated with penance and penitential seasons. This is why priests wear a violet stole when hearing confessions. But penance is never for its own sake – it always has a higher purpose. St. John does not call us to Repent just for the sake of it, or in order that we feel bad about ourselves. Indeed, true repentance is not really about our feelings, as if we need to feel bad enough for long enough that we can be forgiven. Repentance is about changing our lives and our actions. To repent is to turn around, it is to change course, and to go in a new direction. And we find joy in this change in direction because we know that the coming of our Lord and Savior is neigh upon us! As people of faith, we are empowered to take on that sometimes painful but oh so necessary work of repentance not only because God gives us the strength to do it, but because we find joy in doing so. True joy is found in knowing that soon we will meet our Lord, having done the work to prepare for him a dwelling place in our own hearts.

It is true that our Prayer Book tradition does not specify rose, or use the term “Gaudate Sunday.” But the prayerbook does not specify any of the liturgical colors at all. The prayer book is written in a way that allows it to support a variety of traditions and pieties within our larger Anglican tradition. Nevertheless, if we look at the readings appointed, we can see the theme of Gaudate is present today. This is particularly clear in today’s epistle reading from St. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. It is no happy accident that we have an appointed scripture that begins with “Rejoice” – “Gaudate.”

St. Paul was writing to the Christians in the Church in Thessolonica. Some of Paul’s letters are contested by scholars who reject his authorship, but this is not one of them. This letter is universally agreed to be authentically written by Paul (with input from Timothy and Silvanus), and it was written around the year of 51 AD, only 20 or so years after the death and resurrection of Our Lord. This is quite possibly the oldest scripture in all of the New Testament. And here Paul is trying to reassure a Church that is struggling. The Christians in Paul’s gentile Church are facing rejection from local neighbors, and there was great temptation to fall away. In this letter we see Paul as pastor, reassuring his flock of his and of God’s love for them, and of Christ’s eternal faithfulness to them and to all believers.

In preaching I often find myself coming back to the summary of the Law: Love God and love your neighbor. This first line from today’s epistle can function and an expiation of that first great commandment to love God. What does it look like to love God? Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.

This Advent really can seem like the 300th odd day of Lent, with everything that has gone on in our nation and in our world this year. A deadly pandemic that continues to claim more lives each day, racial tensions and race based violence on the rise, and a national political landscape that is more divided now than at any time in living memory. And that is to say nothing of all of the businesses that have had to closes their doors, or of the food pantry lines with multi-hour waits in cities across the country. There are some in our time who experience ridicule for being Christian, too. I think most especially of younger people in more progressive circles. But beyond this direct comparison, taking a wider view, we share with the early Christians in the church of Thessolonica the sense the sense that we are living in a dark time, or as Fr. John says, and evil time. But as Christians, we have seen darks times before. We have seen evil before. Evil times can have their effects. Evil times can cause us to suffer, they can frustrate us, and even break our hearts. But there is one thing that times like these have no right to do; and that is that they have no right to cause us to despair.

As Christians, we rejoice in the Lord always! Yes, rejoice! The darkness darkness may be all around and the fear may be palpable. The evidence available to the secularist may be all doom and gloom, but not for us. As Christians, we are a people who we white at funerals, for even at the grave we make our song!

And so of all years, this year 2020 is a year where we really need Gaudate Sunday. This is a time full of complex issues; wicked problems, as the philosophers call them. We still have the old problems; racial division and hatred, destruction of the environment, nuclear proliferation, children and families going hungry. Add to this the “new” problem of a global pandemic, once again on the rise in our midst. Beginning today, for the safety of our parishioners, all churches in our diocese are barred from in-person worship. But even in the midst of all of this darkness, we find the joy in our Lord to make our song. Our chief joy not found in the obvious and the visible. Our true joy is found in things not yet seen; the glorious return of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Give thanks to the Lord your God in ALL Circumstances! In the midst of violet, rose! In the midst of pandemic, prayer! In the midst of scarcity, thankfulness! In the midst of despair, joy! And in the midsts of all of us gathered in prayer, we find the very presence of Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, the savior and redeemer of the World.

Sermon for Advent 2 2020

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

It is a shame that we so rarely hear from the Second Epistle General of St. Peter. Indeed, after consulting the lectionary I discovered it only appears on two Sundays in our entire three year cycle of readings. So I wanted to focus on our Epistle this morning. Don’t worry; we’ll get more John the Baptist next week.

Like Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonian’s, Peter’s Second Epistle was written in a period of delayed gratification with regard to the Second Coming of Christ. In fact this letter was written at least a decade after Paul’s; Peter actually references Paul’s epistles explicitly in the verses which follow this morning’s lesson, calling them “Scripture,” so not a little time has passed. That being the case, we can imagine the anxiety of Peter’s audience to be even more acute. Why hasn’t Christ returned? Has he forgotten us? Was the second-coming merely a fond idea, vainly invented?

In the Year of our Lord 2020, I admit I feel a bit more kinship with Peter’s audience than I probably have in my entire life. Perhaps I am not alone. Between the pandemic and violence in the streets and the most divisive election in my lifetime and all the other difficulties this year has brought, I’ve found myself saying, without any sense of irony, “why won’t Jesus just come back and fix it already!?”

Peter, such a great pastor, gives us a compelling answer. God’s time is not ours, and any delay is surely so that the Good News can spread farther abroad and more can be saved. Our part is to persevere in godliness and “holy conversation,” to be patient and to persevere in living that simple call to prayer and study and works of charity.

I think this is especially important for us, right now. No doubt many of you will have received notice from me or from the bishop or both that as the church in this diocese we are imminently entering another “lockdown” phase of our life together. As wise and proper as the bishop’s godly counsel on this matter is, it will no doubt be painful for those who have come again to receive the sacrament at this altar. It is truly painful to me. How much more, then, must we remember Blessed Peter’s call to persevere in righteousness, to keep saying our prayers and reading our bibles and doing what small acts of Christian charity we can safely do, during this next season of our common life. How much more must we take to heart that if “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” then what, not to be flippant but I mean it sincerely, is a few more months.

“Every year,” the great Fleming Rutledge has said “Advent begins in the dark.” A friend of mine recently told me he has a peculiar way of reckoning liturgical time this year. By his count, we would currently be on day 317 of Lent. Perhaps that feels to many of us about right, but I would counter that we are now in the midst of the most “Adventy” Advent in our lifetimes. We are by necessity in darkness, called to watch and pray until the glory of the Lord is to be revealed, until all flesh shall see it together.

My prayer is that at the last we will be found to have been a people who did just that, who kept home alive in the darkness, knowing that the great and terrible day of the Lord would come when we least expect it, like a thief in the night, and then we should find that, our consciences being made pure, the Lord has made in us a mansion made ready even for himself.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Sermon for Advent Sunday 2020

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

I occasionally get myself in trouble with my liberal protestant in-laws when issues of religion come up, particularly when it is in the context of a conversation on speakerphone and I just throw something into the mix from the “peanut gallery”, as it were. This happened last week, when I overheard that my mother-in-law was busy constructing and distributing “Advent at home boxes.” When asked what such a thing is, she explained that an object symbolic each Sunday’s themes was included, “this item for ‘hope,’ that for ‘peace,’ this for ‘joy,’ and that for ‘love.’”

I could not help myself, and extemporaneously sung out to the first Advent hymn-tune I could think of (Den des Vaters Sinn Geboren, though I’m not allowed to sing in this space now, for which you may be grateful): “These are not the themes of Advent; they’re death and judgment, heav’n and hell.” I believe this was taken in the good-humored manner in which I intended it, when the only consequence my mother-in-law threatened was not giving me for Christmas a subscription to The Christian Century, which magazine she knows I’m not a fan of.

I realize that I’m a bit of a throwback in insisting on the recovery of traditional themes of Advent–death, judgment, heaven, and hell–but this is likely not surprising to those of you who know me. Before liturgical renewal in the 1960s and 70s, one could find these themes clearly enough implied in both Anglican Prayerbooks (including the 1928) and in the pre-conciliar Roman rite. Now things are a bit more jumbled, and we’ve got to deal with both “last things” and “Christmas preparation” all in four Sundays. At least on this first Sunday of the liturgical year, commonly called “Advent Sunday,” we do get these themes rather unabiguously. The prophet Isaiah entreats the Lord “Oh that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down, that the mountains might flow down at thy presence.” St. Paul encourages the Corinthians, praying that God would give them endurance, “that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ,” that is, on judgment day. And our Lord himself, in the 13th chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel, for-tells the great difficulty of the last days, the ominous signs and the great and terrible glory of the Second-Coming, when he shall come to judge the world.

I said a few weeks ago that reasonable Christians must talk about these things, because they are biblical and theologically important and, most of all, they are in fact hopeful–much more so than what I called in that sermon the “fundamentalist post-apocalyptic horror story” of premillenial dispensationalism found on televangelist stations and the Left Behind novels. So, let’s address the question which I just implied: How is all this hopeful?

It might strike us at first as the opposite because we’ve got so uncomfortable, sadly with anything other than a friendly, cuddly, rather flat view of God. If, however, we remember that God is a God of both mercy and justice, that he upholds the lives of the oppressed which means laying low the oppressor, indeed that God’s wrath can be understood as a working-out of God’s love, then it should not surprise us that the Lord is, by his very nature, the one who levels judgment, preserves the righteous, and avenges the wicked.

We must look to the context of this morning’s readings to see just what Good News it is, not just that “God is in his heaven” but that because not all is right in the world, God will at the last make it so. In appreciating each of our lessons today, we have to recognize that God’s people, in each case, were oppressed by some force external to themselves.

The Jews of Isaiah’s day were under the thumbs of the Babylonians (or at the very least, if modern scholars are right that the last third of Isaiah was written after the return from exile, then they’ve come back to a city and a temple destroyed, crushing material deprivation, and uncertainty that geo-politics would remain in their favor for long). The Christians in Corinth were being broken apart by internal divisions around doctrinal and practical issues, but this was because of pressure from the pagan majority who wanted them to be “good citizens” which by definition meant becoming less faithful and less distinct from the prevailing culture. And in the Gospel, Jesus predicts precisely what would happen the his earliest followers and, indeed, to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem. They will face violent oppression; false messiahs will multiply; a new form of the abomination of desolation (the Prophet Daniel’s euphemism for the statue of Zeus, erected in temple in the 2nd Century B.C.) would be erected (this time, it turned out to be the Roman Army itself), and the temple would be destroyed.

Each of these realities could lead to hopelessness, and the only thing for such times is to hold on to the truth that the judge of the nations is, indeed, just. There is only one who can sort it out, and we are not him.

This is both the most hopeful and the most humane message ever given to humanity. I say it is the most humane, because the inability of both the secular world and indeed of certain strains of Christianity (whether the Pelagians of the fourth and fifth centuries or the liberal protestants who publish the Christian Century… that’s why I don’t like it, by the way), their inability to recognize this truth is among the most inhumane of worldviews possible, ironically clothed in the mantle of “humanism.” What do those worldviews say? It is within your power to make everything right- whether that takes the form of the just society or the Kingdom of God. Save yourself and save the world! If you’ve not managed it, well there must be a problem with you! Pull yourself out of crushing poverty by your own bootstraps. Listen to Kanye West who said slavery sounded like a choice to him. While you’re at it, find in a single political candidate or party the foundation of all your hope for peace and justice and equity. Surely, you’ll never be disappointed.

No, my brothers and sisters. This will never do. We must, of course, strive for justice and peace. We must also permit the Lord Jesus Christ to make us more faithful, prayerful, and moral people. But this will not save us and it will not save the world. Perhaps progress can be made in all these things in our lifetime or those of our children and grandchildren. On the other hand, perhaps we’ll see on the level of culture and society and national and international affairs, regression. Either way, the end is not ours to determine, it is God’s, and God alone will save us.

I think this is all particularly important to remember right now, by which I don’t mean Advent Sunday, but the “dumpster fire” which has been the Year of our Lord 2020. We live, my friends, in an evil time. We are not only beset by moral evil, but by natural evil in the form of a deadly pandemic. There are small things we can do to help push against it: we can wear our masks and keep our distance and wash our hands and all the rest, and we can take the vaccine once it comes out. But a million and a half people have died, a quarter million of them in our own country, and there is absolutely nothing any of us can do to make that fair or right. When placed on the scales of eternity, only God can make it balance.

So, our hope today is found in the same place the Jews did in the Sixth Century before Christ. It is found in the same place the disciples found it during that first generation, on Olivet and by Genesaret’s shore. It is found in the same place the Corinthians found it a generation later. It is found in the sure and certain hope that when the Lord returns he shall, as the Psalmist foretold, “judge the world in righteousness and minister true judgment unto the people.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.